Monday, June 18, 2012

How to Catch Lightning in a Bottle: It's All About The Bottle

As a fifteen year old kid learning bass and playing in my first rock band, the phrase “write a song” conjured up images of Pete Townsend locked in a room with guitars lining the walls, a piano in the middle, and blank music score resting on ornate stands. Of course, there would be pencils everywhere – on the stand, strewn across tables, between Pete’s ear and his genius head, held in his mouth, and certainly in his hand as he furiously scribbled notes on that score paper.

Then I head of Keith Richards emerging from a dream with the most famous guitar riff ever, fully formed in his young and relatively clean brain. Fortunately a guitar was bedside so he could commit it to his fingers’ muscle memory.

I’ve never used music score to write a song. The few times where I have dreamed a song, it has never resulted in a turning point in rock history. But I have written thousands of songs or parts to songs while driving, sitting in boring mettings, or at a great concert.

Through the years I’ve developed some ways to keep those songs, and parts of songs, in safe places until I could find time to work on them.

I think every rock songwriter develops a similar shorthand. It goes something like this:
Intro and Verse: G-D-A-A (as necessary)
Pre CH; D –C# stepdown to Bmi – G –A (2x) (Hammer D 2nd time)
Ch: A - blues riff to - D 3x   G-D fourth

Then there are a bunch of lyrics written in poem form below.

This was a method I used, keeping notebooks more full of writing than anything I used for school.  Then my father bought me a micro tape recorder. So I began recording these ideas on little cassettes.

So certain was I that someday I would capture a hit song, I made sure a notebook was always close by, and there were always fresh batteries in the recorder. For a while I kept an extra recorder and notebook on the stand below my poster of the 25th Grammy Awards. (Someday I will go to the Grammy’s, I promised myself).

Over the decades since I started writing, I’ve maintained this need to capture any creative spark, in the hopes that it would burn brightly. So I’ve added to the notebook and tape recorder method.  Here are some tricks I’ve used or seen used:

1.     Call home to your answering machine or voice mail. When on the road with a band and late at night, I have used this trick. Standing at a rest stop payphone, calling once to tell my girlfriend to not pick up on the next call, and a second time to sing into the recorder. Never has this worked out and become an actual song. But hopped up on caffeine after a gig in another state, a lot of things that seem like good ideas, are not.
2.     With smart phones, there are apps for that. In fact a ton of them. I like “Recorder” on my iPhone. It allows me to record long sessions, upload wifi to my computer, and records in .wav format if I need to bring the audio into other programs. After playing a song, I will leave an audio shorthand of the chords, style, or any other notes to tell the future me what the past me was thinking.
3.     At a higher level than Recorder, there are apps like 4Track and GarageBand which let you do more than use the phone as a modern dictating tape recorder. With available tracks, you can know quickly if that riff in your head words with the chords you imagine. Or if the lyrics can really fit the song that needs one more line.

Those are some of the methods I have used. Before I wrote this, I asked musician friends what they used. While I invited those famous philosopher, fiction, and musician friends I have on FaceBook to respond, like always, those guys never write back. It’s like they don’t take the “Friend” thing seriously. Come on Dalai Llama and David Lowery, show some love.

What I got back really surprised and inspired me:
Chris Viola (Viola Contingent wrote, “I'm very guilty of going the "I don't need to write this down or record it, I'll remember it" route. Of course you don't always remember it. And lately I've been okay with that. I've been letting go of the ones that don't come back as nature's way of thinning the herd.”

Richard Pfleuger ( hasn’t changed his methods of capturing songs. “I'm old school. No phones, computers, or recorders. I hand write chords / lyrics in a notebook until the finished draft can be drafted. Then they are saved in a special folder I've had since I joined my first band over 20 years ago.”

And Matt Megrue (Loners Society, County Line Strangers pushes himself to move forward while using old tech. “I usually handwrite the chords and lyrics in a notebook. My biggest problem is editing before the idea is down, and throwing something away as garbage, before I give it time to develop. I got a typewriter recently though, and that has been helping a lot. It is a lot more permanent and not easy to go back and scratch stuff it forces me to keep pushing forward and not go back, or get hung up on a previous line.”

If anyone else reading this uses other methods or wants to add something, please let me know. We’ll add it to this article and include links to your bands.

Keep holding on to those moments of inspiration. We’d all love to see someone who contributed to this discussion capture and create a hit song someday

1 comment:

  1. I've dreamt up great songs that I couldn't remember and some decent ones that I've groggily hummed into my tiny bedside digital recorder. Mostly I use my dreams for lyrical content and no, we don't write our music in manuscript form either. Many of the great songwriters can't even read music. John Lennon couldn't and when I saw Springsteen's rheems of scribbled notes at the Rock Hall, I thought hurray for old school. Really nicely written blog Tim!